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It looks as though the John Hays Memorial Rumor Mill might become a regular feature of LouisianaVoice.

For the unindoctrinated, Hays, who died five years ago following a protracted battle with cancer, was publisher of Ruston’s Morning Paper, a weekly edition that took on the entrenched power structure and never let up.

But what began as a one-man crusade against the local hospital and local, municipally-run power plant quickly expanded into the scourge of any would-be swindlers, scam artists and flim-flam peddlers. He once took on Ponzi schemer Steven Hoffenberg who headed up a scam called Towers Financial Corp. (TFC) and sent Hoffenberg packing off to federal prison, copping his Morning Paper a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in the process.

As I said yesterday in the column immediately below this one, the misfortune of having one’s name crop up in his Rumor Mill was the local equivalent to having Mike Wallace show up at your office for an interview on 60 Minutes.

And as I said in the opening paragraph, his Rumor Mill may, of necessity, become a permanent feature here after picking up on the rumor we heard today.

(Drum roll, please):

Politics can be a dicey game as two high-ranking officials in the Louisiana State Fire Marshal’s Office apparently have learned, according to reports that have reached the executive offices of LouisianaVoice in beautiful downtown Denham Springs.

Without naming names (we’ll do that when we get official confirmation), word is Gov. John Bel Edwards has sent down word from the State Capitol’s Fourth Floor that the two LSFM officials, one stationed in the LSFM’s Baton Rouge headquarters and the other in Lafayette an hour to the west, should no longer be considered state employees.

Their sin? Backing the wrong horse in the recent gubernatorial election and doing it openly.

But, hey! That’s the price you pay for working as an unclassified state employee. Unclassified means you are appointed and serve at the pleasure of the governor, unprotected by Civil Service.

Unclassified, unlike classified (Civil Service) employees are free to participate in political campaigns, but they best be careful which candidate they back. Support the wrong one and your career can—and will be—cut short.

These two, we’re told, actively campaigned for Republican Eddie Rispone, apparently fairly certain that a Democrat couldn’t possible be elected governor twice in such a red state dominated by the likes of Lane Grigsby, Rispone’s mentor and principal benefactor. Surely Edwards’s win over David Vitter four years ago was an anomaly, more of an indictment of Vitter than an endorsement of Edwards, a (shudder) Democrat.

That may have been where the smart money was but the smart money doesn’t always take into account the intangibles in a tight election and the intangibles in this one included the impotence of Donald Trump’s support of Rispone (three trips to Louisiana) and an unexpectedly high turnout in support of Edwards.

And unclassified employees who rode the wrong pony are now paying the price.

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There was an interesting contrast between Donald Trump’s visits to Monroe on Nov. 4 and Bossier City 10 days later.

In Monroe, Trump endorsed challenger Robert Mills in a state senate race 100 miles to the west, as reported by, among others, THE HAYRIDE, one of the state’s principal cheerleaders for Eddie Rispone and Trump. (That was the same rally, by the way, in which Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin violated state law that prohibits the secretary of state from participating in any partisan campaign other than for his own election by ENDORSING Rispone for governor.)

Mills is seeking to unseat incumbent Ryan Gatti in Senate District 36, which encompasses all of Webster Parish and parts of Bienville, Bossier and Claiborne parishes. Both men are Republicans but Gatti has offended the Republican hierarchy with his non-partisan voting record in the House and by supporting some of the programs of Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat.

Around the same time that Trump was endorsing Mills in that Monroe appearance, Monroe radio personality Moon Griffon got Gatti squarely in his crosshairs, posting on FACEBOOK a copy of an invitation issued by Gatti for a luncheon hosted at his home at which Edwards would be the “special guest.”

Griffon, falling in line with Trump, Rispone, and The Hayride, obediently LAMBASTED Gatti on his radio show (to listen, go to the 10-minute mark of the link).

So far, so good. Everyone is in lockstep. Trump, Rispone, Griffon, The Hayride, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson, LABI (Mills actually sat on the board of NORTH-PAC, one of LABI’s four directional political action committees).

Until last night, that is. When Trump appeared in Bossier Thursday night, he was smack dab in the middle of District 36 and in the perfect position to again throw his support behind Mills.

In fact, The Hayride on Monday of this week said, “It’ll get even worse when Trump repeats the (Monroe) performance in Bossier City Thursday, at which (time) the president will repeat his endorsement of Mills over Gatti inside of District 36 itself.”

Except he didn’t.

Conspicuously absent in Trump’s Bossier City rally last night was any mention of Mills.

None. Zip. Nada.

Could Ashley Madison have played a role in Trump’s decision not to call for the election of Mills?

LouisianaVoice on Oct. 31 had a STORY that Mills’s name had appeared on the Ashley Madison web page, the online dating service designed specifically for married people seeking a discreet extra-marital affair.

Oops.

So much for the presidential endorsement on the candidate’s home turf.

The absurdity of it all has prompted one lifelong Republican to observe, “This is the craziest election I’ve ever seen. Mike Johnson is behind all of it. (He’s a) fake Christian conservative hatchet man. I just voted for my first Democrat ever.”

 

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It’s been a long time since an election in Louisiana has featured the level of accusations and misleading ads.

Like four years.

It was in 2015 when then State Rep. John Bel Edwards rolled out his “Prostitutes over Patriots” ad to taint U.S. Sen. David Vitter in the latter’s attempt to succeed the controversial Bobby Jindal to the state’s governor’s mansion next to Capitol Lake.

That ad was a reminder of Vitter’s embarrassing scandal over his skipping a vote to honor 28 soldiers killed in action in favor of taking a call from a PROSTITUTES.

That ad eclipsed Vitter’s attempt to smear Edwards for his visit to a black nightclub that featured semi-nude dancers.

In an ugly sidebar, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, a Republican who succeeded the colorful—and controversial—Harry Lee, got involved in the race, first by endorsing Edwards and then by collaring an apparent campaign mole attempting to record a session of Edwards supporters at a coffee claque.

Ugly indeed. Worthy of Earl Long.

Fast forward to 2019 and little has changed.

Both candidates, incumbent Gov. Edwards, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Eddie Rispone have unloaded a spate of attack ads against each other that have Louisiana voters suffering severe cases of campaign fatigue. If possible, the barrage is worse even than the avalanche of lawyer ads that seem to obscure local newscasts.

Edwards convinced black leaders in New Orleans to remove an ad comparing Rispone to David Duke, prompting Rispone to accuse Edwards of playing the race card, accusing Edwards’ family of racism because his ancestors were slave owners.

Ugly.

Even Donald Trump has inserted himself into the governor’s race, appearing at rallies over the state and charging that Edwards is pro-abortion and anti-2nd Amendment.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Edwards broke with his own party to support and sign into law one of the harshest anti-abortion laws in the nation—the constitutionality of which will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. And Edwards, himself a hunter, is a strong advocate of the 2nd Amendment.

Rispone has fashioned himself as a “jobs creator,” but Edwards ads point out that he has a record of outsourcing jobs to foreign workers who subsequently sued him over benefits. And as for the jobs Rispone says he “created,” Edwards has noted that Rispone’s company has received millions of dollars in tax exemptions for businesses that created precious few jobs.

Rispone has an ad attacking Edwards as being “too liberal for Louisiana” that inserts Edwards responding to the hypothetical “how liberal is John Bel Edwards,” saying “That’s a stupid question.”

Problem is, the Edwards comment is taken out of context. The remark was in response to Rispone’s debate question about New Orleans being a sanctuary city—which, in fact, was an uninformed question, much like Rispone’s claim that the State Constitution contained 400 pages just on the state tax code.

Ugly.

The Edwards campaign features an ad that shows Rispone introducing then-Gov. Bobby Jindal at some function (we don’t know what, but it does appear authentic). His introduction is interspersed with negative news headlines about major budget cuts and budgetary shortfalls that occurred during Jindal’s eight years. Rispone can be heard congratulating Jindal on “a great job.”

The end concludes with a warning that we can’t go back to the Jindal years.

Recently, Secretary of State KYLE ARDOIN apparently violated a state prohibition against him (or any secretary of state) from participating in any partisan election other than his own—because as secretary of state, he is in charge of impartially overseeing all elections in the state—when he appeared in a Trump rally in Monroe and endorsed Rispone.

Ugly.

A Rispone ad inaccurately accused one of Edwards’ supporters, a West Point roommate, of landing a STATE CONTRACT worth up to $65 million. The facts revealed that while Murray Starkel did bid on the coastal restoration contract, neither his firm nor any of the other three bidders received the contract. The ad was subsequently pulled.

A Rispone ad attacking Edwards’ MILITARY RECORD was particularly ugly, especially in light of the fact that Rispone’s primary benefactor, Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby, DROPPED OUT of West Point.

And while Rispone appears satisfied to attack Edwards vis TV ads, he seems reluctant to face Edwards face to face, one on one, other than the formal debates to which he committed earlier. But he was a NO SHOW at a Baton Rouge Area Chamber forum as well as a Baton Rouge Press Club debate, prompting one observer to speculate that he didn’t get Grigsby’s permission to attend.

And while Rispone offers no hard solutions to any of the state’s problems other than to say he is a “jobs creator,” Edwards can—and does—boast that he took over a state wallowing in eight consecutive years of budgetary deficits of the Jindal administration to produce a $300 million budget surplus.

Rispone’s most effective ad features his daughter Dena extolling his family values, his faith and the fact that he is not only a wonderful father, but a “good man.” It’s easily the least offensive ad that either candidate has rolled out, even more effective than the image of Edwards driving down the road in his pickup truck with his arm draped around his wife’s shoulder. That ad may have been genuine, but I couldn’t help but feel it appeared contrived, posed. Rispone’s daughter, by contrast, was about as sincere as any ad in the entire festering campaign and, looking directly into the camera, she comes across as a truly loving daughter. Nothing about it seems rehearsed.

Rispone, however, all but negates that ad with another in which he opens by saying Louisiana is the best state in the nation but immediately clicks off a multitude of poor rankings that causes one to question his claim of our being the “best” state.

There can be no denying there are lingering problems that are so entrenched from decades of back room politics that put lawmakers’ personal gain of the state’s best interests.

In 2018, Louisiana had an unemployment rate of 4.9 percent, fourth-highest in the nation, and a poverty rate of 18.6 percent, the nation’s third-highest.

There are those who are not as enamored as Rispone’s daughter. And the skeptics include at least two elected Republicans.

One, a state senator, cautioned, “If you think Jindal was bad, just wait until you see what happens if Rispone is elected.”

Another, a parish official, said Rispone would bring back former commissioners of administration Kristi Nichols and Angelle Davis from “political oblivion” to work in his administration.

Those two, and others Republicans with similar opinions, will be targeted by the State Republican Party as RINOs (Republicans in Name Only).

Regardless, the citizens of Louisiana will breathe a sigh of relief when this circus is over.

Political campaigns in Louisiana can wear even the most resilient observer down to his or her last nerve.

Ugly.

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John Paul Funes walked into federal district court in Baton Rouge on Thursday, not in an orange prison jump suit but in a dark business suit with a nicely-pressed blue shirt accented by a pink tie, for his sentencing in connection with his EMBEZZLEMENT of nearly $800,000 from a Baton Rouge hospital foundation—a children’s hospital foundation at that—and received a whopping 33 months in prison.

Funes, 49, was already receiving more than $350,000 per year in salary from the foundation he headed but that, apparently, was not enough.

He could have been sentenced to up to 20 years in prison for his transgressions but U.S. District Judge John deGravelles, who earlier accepted Funes’ guilty pleas, apparently felt that 33 months was punishment enough for the white-collar crimes of wire fraud and money laundering.

Contrast that, if you will, with the sentence handed down to one BERNARD NOBLE, an African-American not pulling down $350 thou a year.

Back in 2010, he was arrested while biking in New Orleans—a bicycle, mind you, not a Lexus or BMW—for possession of three grams of marijuana. It would be seven years before he saw his family again.

Sentenced to 13 ½ years in prison at hard labor without the possibility of parole as a habitual offender—he did have previous drug arrests, none of them violent and none which involved stealing from cancer-stricken children—he spent seven years behind bars before being finally freed on parole, thanks in large part to the efforts of billionaire New York hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb who spent years lobbying courts and Louisiana elected officials to reverse Noble’s sentence.

Three grams. Enough for two whole joints.

Meanwhile, Funes pilfered gift cards intended for cancer patients. He flew family and associates to LSU and Saints football games on charter flights he labeled on the books as “outbound patient transports,” and funneled nearly $300,000 to the parents of two former LSU football players–$107,000 to the mother and sister of former quarterback Rohan Davey (they kicked back $63,000 to Funes) and $180,000 to James Alexander, father of former LSU offensive lineman Vadal Alexander.

But for DEREK HARRIS of Abbeville, an unemployed Gulf War veteran, things didn’t turn out so well. He’s currently serving life imprisonment for selling $30 worth of weed to an undercover agent.

After posting bond following his 2009 arrest, Harris, who also happens to be African-American, waited three years for his trial to start. He chose a trial by judge rather than facing a jury. On June 26, 2012, the judge found him guilty and imposed a 15-year sentence.

But that apparently wasn’t enough for the district attorney, who then filed a habitual offender bill of information based on Harris’s prior arrests and on Nov. 15, 2012, he was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole—his service to his country be damned. For $30 worth of marijuana, which shouldn’t rise to the level of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from a foundation intended for children suffering from cancer and giving it to football players’ families.

Did I mention that Funes got just 33 months for that? Or that he was making $350,000 a year when he went off the rails?

Noble was riding a bicycle and Harris was unemployed and were sentenced to 13 ½ years and life, respectively, for pot. Funes stole from sick babies. And he’ll serve maybe half of those 33 months before he’s a free man again. Maybe.

Following Noble’s conviction, two district court judges attempted to lower his sentence to five years because of his lack of a violent record but Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro put the kibosh on those attempts. Loeb, a major supporter of criminal justice reform efforts, eventually learned of his case and became involved.

Appeals to then-Gov. Bobby Jindal fell on deaf ears and it wasn’t until John Bel Edwards became governor and efforts were begun to reduce maximum sentences for marijuana possession. Finally, through the combined efforts of Loeb, Nobel’s attorney Jee Park of the Innocence Project of New Orleans (IPNO), Cannizzaro finally relented and he was re-sentenced to eight years.

Funes, however, received 33 months for embezzling from a charitable foundation to which people contributed in good faith in the belief they were helping sick children, some of them terminally ill.

Of course, Funes did help a couple of LSU football players and he did make restitution of $796,000, which is equivalent to little more than two years’ salary for him, so that must make it all right.

 

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Eddie Rispone, who will face incumbent John Bel Edwards in the Nov. 16 general election for governor, calls himself a political outsider. In fact, that appears to be about the only position he has taken in the entire campaign other than proclaiming ad nauseam that he is a “job creator.”

And if running for public office for the first time serves as the barometer for which the term is defined, then yes, he is a political outsider.

But if you include participation behind the scenes—as in pouring hundreds of thousand of dollars into various political campaigns in order to make one’s influence felt in the halls of the Louisiana Legislature—then no, Eddie Rispone is anything but a political outsider.

If allowing someone like Baton Rouge contractor Lane Grigsby control your campaign—even to the point of boasting that he will chair your transition committee following your election (as claimed Wednesday over a Baton Rouge radio program)—then Eddie Rispone would have to be considered the consummate political insider.

Rispone, by necessity, had to participate in the gubernatorial debates because he was pitted not against Edwards in the first primary, but against Congressman Ralph Abraham, to see who would face Edwards in the general election.

And now that he’s in the runoff, he seems to be dodging any face-to-face confrontation with Edwards. Just last night (Tuesday), he was a no-show at a statewide forum sponsored by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber of Commerce, leaving Edwards alone to field questions.

It’s a strategy, regrettably, that may be in Rispone’s favor. With no real proposals forthcoming from him other than his repeated claim that he is a “job creator,” and knowing that as the only Republican candidate in a very red state, he need only keep his head down and avoid major gaffs for the next three weeks.

The two are scheduled to participate in one final debate one week from today. We’ll see if Rispone keeps that date.

Since 2003, the first year that Bobby Jindal ran for governor, Rispone and various family members have forked over more than $944,000 in political campaign contributions to various candidates—including $19,000 to Jindal and $35,000 to David Vitter’s 2015 campaign for governor.

Rispone and family have also contributed:

  • $72,600 to Citizens for a Better Baton Rouge Political Action Committee (PAC);
  • $50,000 to Education PAC;
  • $100,000 to Empower Louisiana PAC (chaired by Grigsby);
  • $250,000 to the Louisiana Federation for Children PAC;
  • $40,000 to the Republican Party of Louisiana;
  • $175,000 to the Fund for Louisiana’s Future.

Like his protégé, Grigsby likes to play behind the scenes, preferring to act not as a king, but as a kingmaker. And by holding the purse strings, he wields far more power than many office holders do themselves but without the pesky necessity of answering to constituents.

As such, he has been the chief “sponsor” of Rispone’s candidacy, hoping to install his own candidate in the fourth floor of the House that Huey Built so that he, like the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, can call the shots without being subjected to voters’ scrutiny.

And now we have Donald Trump spewing disinformation about John Bel Edwards on behalf of Rispone. Trump’s TV ads, which are peppering the airwaves, claim that Edwards is pro-abortion and anti-Second Amendment. Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, Edwards has alienated the Democratic Party with his Pro-Life stance, based on his Catholic background—and don’t forget, he supported and signed a strong anti-abortion bill into law that is presently before the U.S. Supreme Court.

And his pro-Second Amendment record is out there everyone to see—even Donald Trump. But in a political campaign, anything goes—even outright lies.

Grigsby’s campaign contributions dwarf those of Rispone. He and his family members have poured more than $2 million into various political campaigns since 2003, meaning that between him and student Rispone, they have spent just a shade under $3 million on a wide array of candidates and causes.

Unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate Rob Maness was on the Jim Engster Show on Wednesday morning and he made the claim that Grigsby is already spreading the word around Baton Rouge that he will chair Rispone’s transition committee after he’s elected governor on Nov. 16.

But Grigsby recently may have crossed an ethics line, assuming such a line even exists anymore—or ever did—in the world of Louisiana politics.

In the Oct. 12 primary election for State Senator from Baton Rouge’s 16th District, Democrat Beverly Brooks Thompson led a five-candidate field with 14,213 votes (34 percent) while incumbent Republican Steve Carter and Republican challenger Franklin Foil finished in a tie for second place.

With a three-candidate runoff looming, which would have been in favor of Thompson since only a plurality would be needed to win, Grigsby, desperate to install a Republican, tried to entice Foil into dropping out by promising him a judgeship.

As it turned out, that was unnecessary because a re-count gave Foil a four-vote win over Carter, placing him in the Nov. 16 runoff alone against the Democrat.

But Grigsby’s offer brings into sharp focus the problem with big money in political races. It is indisputable that any candidate—whether he has anything to offer or whether he is just an empty suit—with sufficient money for enough sound-bite television ads has a tremendous advantage over a candidate with plenty of substance but no money.

No one should be able to purchase a judgeship—or any other office. That flies in the face of everything this country is supposed to stand for, but apparently no longer does.

Kris Kristofferson wrote a beautiful song entitled Me and Bobby Magee. There’s a line in that song that says “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.”

To paraphrase that line, “Free elections is just another term for plutocracy.”

 

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